chapter  1
10 Pages

Examining the illusion of accountability


Accountability features as an important – perhaps the most important –theme in the ongoing debate on the EU’s democratic deficit (Curtin and Wille 2008). This seems only natural, since accountability is necessary if representative democracy is to work. Representatives must, if they are to fulfil their duties in an effective manner, be accorded independent powers to act. On the other hand, they must not forget those whom they represent. With the use of open mandates, there will always be a need for institutional

arrangements which force representatives to be responsive to the wishes of those they represent (Pitkin 1967: 233). Representative democracy is about the controlled transmission of power (Sartori 1987: 232-4). If there is to be any guarantee that representatives actually work to promote the interests of citizens, the latter must be able to hold the former accountable for their actions. Thus, representative political systems which lack mechanisms for holding decision-makers effectively accountable are seriously flawed from a democratic standpoint. Do EU citizens have real opportunities to hold decision-makers accoun-

table, or does the current institutional set-up in the Union merely create an illusion of accountability? That is the central question of this volume. There are widespread and growing concerns that the political system of the EU does not, in fact, afford citizens appropriate mechanisms of accountability (Schmitter 2000; Harlow 2002; Arnull and Wincott 2002; Fischer 2004; Bovens 2007a). The aim of the current study is to ascertain whether such concerns are warranted. We thereby connect up with the ongoing debate on the EU’s democratic

deficit, which has been with us for almost two decades now. Concerns over accountability are an integral part of this overarching discussion on the Union’s democratic credentials. Is a democratisation of the EU necessary? Is it desirable? Is there, in fact, any problem that really needs addressing here? And if there is, can it be remedied? As we understand it, there are three main positions in this huge debate: According to the first, there is no democratic problem at the European level

(Moravcsik 2002, 2008; Majone 2005). The EU works wonderfully, and the

some politi-deficit. Proponents of the second position argue that there is indeed a democratic

problem, and that it can and should be addressed. The solution is to introduce more political competition at the European level, thus establishing ‘limited democratic politics’ in the European Union (Føllesdal and Hix 2006; Hix 2008). Advocates of the third position concede there is a democratic deficit, but

they believe we should proceed with extreme care when deciding how or whether to address it. They warn us that the cure may turn out to be worse than the disease (Bartolini 2006, 2008; Scharpf 2008, 2009). Taking a step back, we might ask why questions of democracy and

accountability are relevant in the context of the European Union. Is not the EU, after all, just an international organisation among others, to which member states have delegated tasks which they believe are more efficiently handled at the international level? Why is there so much fuss about the EU’s democratic deficit? True enough, scholars are now beginning to analyse and question the democratic status not only of the EU but of other international organisations as well (e.g. Zweifel 2006). However, the demands placed on the EU when it comes to meeting democratic criteria are far heavier than on any other international organisation. How come? We believe that the EU (and its member states) has partly itself to blame

that the debate over its democratic shortcomings has become so heated. While formally an international organisation, namely, the EU has gradually acquired an institutional structure and set of competencies that had previously been reserved for nation-states. In its current form, the EU is an extremely influential organisation, with the power to make collective decisions which are binding on all residents of its member states. When a decisionmaking body is that powerful, concerns over democracy and legitimacy are only natural and appropriate. Furthermore, the EU has partly responded to the demands for democrati-

sation that have been placed upon it. Through a series of treaty reforms over time, it has developed an institutional set-up bearing a reasonable resemblance to a democratic political system. At the international level, that makes the EU unique, as the only site today of governance beyond the nation-state where ‘the incipient institutions of a “democratic” transnational political community are faintly visible’ (Dahl 1994: 32). This has served to encourage the idea that a ‘third transformation’ (Dahl 1989: 309-21) in the history of democratic practice may be possible.